10 Keys for Kentucky as the Schedule Gets Tough

The Wildcats are 8-1 but for the most part it has been hard to gauge how good they are because of the level of competition they have played.  Their lone game against a high level team resulted in a close loss to Kansas.  The Jayhawks have looked shaky recently which has left some fans worried that Kentucky may not be all that good.  With that said it is worth noting that the “cupcakes” that the Cats have played have been solid teams that will contend in their leagues for the most part.  Still Kentucky must face stiffer competition before fans and media will fully endorse them as a good team.  The stiff competition is coming on Saturday and it will not stop for the remainder of the season.  This weekend will also mark the beginning of “camp Cal” when the Cats will be able to practice unlimited hours and as often as Cal wants over the winter break.  It always serves as a pivotal point in the season and should do the same this year.  Here are 10 keys for Kentucky as the schedule takes a dramatic turn.

  1. Figure out how to fully utilize Kevin Knox– He has certainly been the Cats best player on offense to this point but Cal is still working to figure out how to maximize his offense.  Cal has not had a player with the size and abilities of Knox and that presents a good problem for the hall of fame coach as he tries to unlock his potential.  Could a pick and pop with Quade Green be one potential answer?  Only time will tell but no matter what it is the Cats must build their half court offense around Kevin Knox because he will be the best player on the floor in nearly every game they play.
  2. Hamidou Diallo must be the aggressor and not settle for shots – Hami is the basketball equivalent of a shotgun, from far away he is not all that dangerous but  from close distance he is lethal .  If he gets an occasional wide open shot from deep and makes it that is great but his real weapon is when he attacks the basket.  He is one of the greatest pure athletes to ever play at Kentucky and he has to use those tools to his advantage.  He is deadly in the open court on a fast break and is also very good in the paint in the half court offense.  He draws fouls, rebounds, gets steals, and provides great energy for the team when he is in attack mode.  If Cal can get him to play that way on a regular basis it will be a problem for opponents going forward.
  3. Nick Richards to keep making strides– Fans will never get to see Richards full potential at Kentucky because his room for growth is so high that it will take him years to reach it.  The good thing for Cal and company is that he is improving at a very fast pace.  Kentucky needs him to be a force on the glass and to provide a shot blocking presence inside the paint.  The offense they get from him in any given game is a big bonus.  A huge key for Nick is to learn how to stay out of foul trouble.  By March he should be playing on a completely different level than he was in early November.
  4. PJ Washington has to be a warrior– The results for PJ have been mixed so far this season, especially for some fans that had unrealistic expectations for him.  He can develop into a very good offensive player but what Cal needs from him the most is to play like a beast.  That means attacking the boards with reckless abandon and doing all the little things that win games.  If he can play with a high motor on a consistent basis the stats will come as a by product.
  5. Get Jarred Vanderbilt healthy– There is a chance that he may not play this season but I still think he is likely to get back near the start of January.  He would give Kentucky a deeper bench and another big long athlete capable of being a difference maker.  When healthy he is one of the five best players on this team if not the second best.  The Cats can be a very good team even without Vanderbilt but it would sure be a lot easier with him healthy.
  6. Become an elite defensive team– So far the Cats have not looked like a great defensive team but that is actually pretty customary for Cal’s teams early in the season.  Think about last season and how bad Kentucky’s defense looked for much of the year before it became one of their strong points by March.  This team has a much higher potential defensively than the team last year.  As the season goes on if they can play defense at the level that I think they can it will make them very tough to beat in March.
  7. Quade Green emerge as the leader– On a team as young as this there must be a presence to lead them on the court.  Quade is well respected by his teammates and seems to be the best equipped to become a general on the floor.  His shooting is also crucial for this team but it is his leadership that is most needed for this team to reach its potential.
  8. Learn how to win– While this may sound like a rather obvious key it can not be over stated.  These young guys really still don’t know how to play when it is “winning time” because they have not experienced it enough.  They need to get into crunch time against good teams and find how to and how not to play.  There will be some losses involved in this learning process and some wins that are closer than they should be but that is how they will learn.  It is stressful for fans but realize that it is the only way for them to be ready in March.
  9. The supporting cast must thrive in their roles– This is in no way meant as a slight to Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Tai Wnyard because they are all crucial in their own ways.  From one game to the next any of these players could be the key factor to winning a game.  Tai will play the least but he must be ready to give solid minutes when the need arises.  The other three are key rotational players that will be on the floor a lot.  They must zero in on what role Cal has for them and find a way to do that as well as they possibly can.
  10. Play to their strengths– This team will have less experience than virtually every team they will play this year.  On the flip side they will be bigger, faster, and stronger than most teams they will play this year.  The key will be to use their physical advantages to overcome what they lack in terms of experience.  One way to do this is by using their size to dominate the glass.  Another way is by running any chance they get in the open court.  To put it simply they must learn how to maximize their physical gifts while they wait for their experience to grow.

There is a lot that will change about this team by the time March arrives but we will learn a lot about where they are on the process in the next few games.  Buckle up Big Blue Nation because this should be another wild ride.

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